One of Northern Ireland’s leading shopping malls is at the centre of a High Court battle over a £6 million redevelopment scheme.
Dunnes Stores has issued legal proceedings against plans by the Abbey Centre’s owners to build a major nearby unit to be occupied by rival trader Next.
Dunnes, a tenant for more than 30 years, claims the proposals will lead to customers entering the centre through a competitor.
The loss of 79 car spaces through the redevelopment could also inflict damage on its business, it was argued.
But a judge has now lifted an interim order stopping building work after being told Next may “desert” the Abbey Centre for an alternative location if the expansion work does not proceed.
Mr Justice Deeny held that maintaining the injunction until the action goes to trial risked the new premises being uncompleted by an October 2016 contract deadline.
He said Next could then walk away, “leaving the defendants with having spent about £6m on a development for which they then have to find a tenant”.
The judge, who visited the location, rejected claims that the status quo should remain around an eastern entrance to the mall, close to Dunnes.
“It seems to me that the defendant’s expert is justified in saying that the present situation does look rather outdated and unattractive,” he said.
“Furthermore, the defendants have spent some £200,000 on enabling works for this site development.”
Dunnes went to court seeking to have Abbey Centre owners New River Trustee Ltd restrained from any alterations that would interfere with a lease it has held since 1982.
The retailer’s concerns centre on plans to build a new 43,000 sq ft Next outlet close to its 16,500 sq ft premises.
The proposed new shop is to be constructed over four floors on the existing eastern entrance to the centre.
Lawyers for Dunnes argued that the development is going to cost New River Trustee money, with Next being offered a rent-free deal for up to 24 months of a 15-year lease.
They also claim the proposals could result in their own store becoming less visible to shoppers.
Counsel for Abbey Centre contended, however, that Dunnes will suffer no loss from a construction that will revive the mall’s eastern end.
It was also stressed that a contract has been signed to complete the building within 20 months.
Although he ruled that Dunnes has an arguable case, Mr Justice Deeny decided to lift the temporary ban on construction work after citing a delay of up to nine months in taking legal action.
He confirmed: “The interim injunction granted by the court will not, therefore be continued, extended or enlarged.”